Book Report: Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)

YHB finally read Father Comes Home from the Wars, the Suzan-Lori Parks three-part play set in the Civil War. It’s a remarkable work, really powerful stuff. The poetry of the language, the drama of the revelations, the way she makes us see the old history with new eyes. Amazing stuff. I regret not going down to New Haven to see the Yale Rep’s production last Spring.

There’s a sense in which it’s almost cheating to set such good stuff among slaves during the Civil War. We’ve inherited such a screwy view of history that almost the slightest nudge to it feels like an earthquake. Just the decision to tell a heroic story about an enslaved man who accompanies his owner to the rebel front is a radical step. Frankly, the decision to make actual characters of enslaved people is radical in itself, and then to make them archetypes, to use them to comment on the Odyssey (which John Barth claims somewhat persuasively to be one of a very few foundation texts of the West) is almost too much. Almost.

I continue to be impressed by Ms. Parks’ audacity, and her ability to pull off her pretensions. In Topdog/Underdog, the drama between the brothers could well have just been drama between the brothers, but drama between African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth, well, that’s something else, innit? The Great Hole of History, the Hottentot Venus, her Scarlet Letter plays… She’s wildly, implausibly ambitious in her goals, which is much more exciting for me than people writing about the domestic squabbles of unpleasant people. I would probably be impressed with her ambitions even if she were writing reductive, preachy plays that pretty much served to make me feel better about being a liberal. But she’s writing complicated, troubling and many-layered plays that don’t resolve nicely.

In this one, the main character, who is called Hero at the beginning of the night and Ulysses at the end of it, struggles to understand what freedom might be, not as a concept but in practical terms, for him and the people he loves. When he gets a new name, he sheds an old one. When he is emancipated, he loses his family, his position, his monetary value. He knows that for someone in his position, every gain comes with a loss. He is not cushioned from the consequences the way that other people can be—in fact, every gain for them comes with a loss for him also. He’s not a tragic figure, or a noble one. He’s got enough brains to know that brains aren’t enough.

There’s a great, great moment right in the middle of the middle play, when a Union soldier, held captive by Hero’s owner, takes off the jacket of his uniform and reveals that he has another uniform jacket underneath it. Another Union jacket. He coat was a disguise, but it wasn’t a disguise—he really is a Union soldier, but he’s passing as a Union soldier. The Confederate soldier doesn’t figure out what it means, and neither did I, but Hero does: the fellow we thought was a Captain is actually a Private. Hero follows another step: the fellow we thought was a White Captain is actually a Black Private. In that moment—the shedding of one jacket to reveal a nearly-identical one—everything we knew about the character changes. He doesn’t look any different. His entire disguise is imperceptible but all-encompassing. Hero seems to know which jacket is true, the inner or the outer, but the audience… doesn’t. I still don’t, not really.

Ms. Parks has a new play that will premiere next year. It’s called White Noise, and the basic description looks unambitious, naturalistic, small. I suspect it isn’t any of those things.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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